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Postcards from the Past — No. 2

May 8, 2013

Postcards from the Past 
A new, occasional blog post by CER President Jeanne Allen in commemoration of CER’s 20th Anniversary in business and the historical events that have taken place during our history.

It was January, 1997. It was Pennsylvania. The letter began:

“I recently read with considerable interest your account of the charter school debate in Pennsylvania…I’m not sure who your source was for that account but I thought I’d take the opportunity…to give you the rest of the story…”

The letter was from the president of the PA School Boards Association, Thomas Gentzel, and he was angry that we called the pending proposal in PA a “lousy” charter bill, because it vested all the authority to create charters with school boards. We said at the time, that doing so might make the Blob content, but that it would never lead to charters being created.

Indeed, back then, and even now, school boards associations are more antagonistic about charter school bills that spread the authority for chartering to other entities, like universities, or Mayors, or independent entities completely. The fact is that any division of power for them is a loss of power.

This recently played out again in Mississippi, as it does in every state when charters come up. Republican leaders who wanted desperately to do something about their state’s very weak charter school law admitted that the school board members and superintendents back home were putting heavy pressure on them to limit chartering to only the failing school districts, so that they would not have any schools opening in their districts. On top of that, they opposed multiple authorizers. They always do of course, but retaining sole authority of charter schools to school districts, as PA’s Genztel argued for in 1997, results in exactly the number of charter schools the school boards associations prefer. Zero.

“…the definition of ‘lousy charter bill’,” says Gentzel, “is a matter of taste. The version that passed the House…achieved a notable balance in our opinion: it afforded considerable relief from mandates to charter schools while ensuring that [only] school directors…were empowered to evaluate and act on charter applications.”

In the end, Gov Tom Ridge and his administration held firm and insisted on an appeals process to mitigate what we convinced them would be the effect of having school board only approval of charters. But to this day, the lack of multiple authorizing that was at the heart of that compromise plagues both existing, successful charters from growing as well as would-be schools from opening.

At the same time that effort was ongoing, founder of the L.A.-based Accelerated Charter School, Johnathan Williams, had traveled at our request to Indiana to meet with business leaders and then State Senator Teresa Lubbers who was leading the charge to enact a charter law, an effort that would finally see success some seven years later! Williams, coming from a state in which at the time only school boards could approve charters and even with an appeals process told the group that they should begin with multiple authorizers so as to avoid the hostilities that he had seen throughout his and other’s tenures in Indiana.

They listened and learned and year after year they chose not to adopt a weak law just to have a law and placate the Blob. In 2001, Indiana passed its charter law, with multiple authorizers including the Indianapolis Mayor and Universities, and it was strong, enabling dozens of new, robust schools to see the light of day and grow to serve students most in need.

Kudos to those policymakers who stand firm from the start, and recognize the importance of lessons learned.


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